Fits and the Foster Child – the Ire of Injustice
My father was a strict disciplinarian and very early he impressed upon us the three cardinal sins of the Smith household:
- Acting up in public.
- Talking back.
- Throwing a fit.
Acting up at home was one thing but to act up in public resulted in an effective doubling or more of the potential retribution. When a parent or adult spoke, though you might rebel in your mind, you smartly kept it to yourself. Lastly, we were simply not authorized to throw a tantrum/fit. You just didn’t do it. Throwing a fit was considered a supreme act of insurgency and was immediately met with overwhelming force in response.
An account from the annals of Smith family lore highlights the insisted upon compliance. We were visiting relatives and my father informed me it was bedtime so I promptly got up and went to bed. Our relatives marveled at my acquiescence, that I went to bed with no argument, with no fit. They apparently didn’t understand that a fit was not an authorized activity. Perhaps fits were considered an acceptable alternative in their home. My father used to proudly tout this account as proof positive of the success of his anti-fit parenting.
As a parent myself, I’ve adopted a similar stance on fits but as a foster parent and the adoptive parent of traumatized children, I’ve had to adjust my technique…just a bit.
Foster kids throw fits. Traumatized kids throw fits. It’s what they do. They didn’t get the memo that this wasn’t authorized activity.
Though a child psychologist could codify the pathology behind a tantrum, from my observation, it normally involves a perceived injustice. The fit is the response to the injustice. Emotional damage due to trauma may widen the perception disparity while an actual medical condition (i.e. autism) may condition the response.
Either way, things get ugly. Quick.
Our second foster child, a young boy of 5, began throwing tantrums after a month or two in our home, maybe once he was comfortable. It began as resistance to the consumption of any food that didn’t come from a drive-thru or a gas station and over time devolved into him screaming and writhing on the floor as if demon-possessed. He didn’t get the memo.
As a foster kid, overwhelming force was not authorized in response and he knew that and so we…watched him throw fits. We tried to talk him off the ledge. We bribed him. We encouraged. We coaxed. We reassured. We filmed it and played it back later for him to enjoy too. We left the room.
The trauma of his time in the system—forced removal from his parents, their drug abuse, a divorce—skewed his sense of justice. Powerless to affect his situation, or even understand it, He raged in response, lashing out in the only way he could fathom.
Physiological conditions, so common with foster kids, exacerbate the issue. One of my sons was diagnosed with Tourette’s and is on the autism spectrum, largely due to his biological mother’s extensive prenatal drug abuse.
This young man has no filter on his emotions. He burns hot or cold to the extreme. When happy, his joy borders upon hilarity. When angry, look out. The slightest thing, things that you or I would consider minutiae, will push him over the edge.
At a pool party once, his popsicle fell to the ground. He exploded in a fit of rage, wailing in anger and unchecked ire at the sheer injustice of his popsicle falling to the ground. Never mind that he was instantly offered another. His rage consumed his response. The fact that every other kid there was looking on with a, “Uh, dude?” expression on their faces only made matters worse. He was perfectly aware of what was happening and that people were looking at him but was truly powerless to stop.
As he is my son, I’m authorized to apply overwhelming force as necessary to reinforce to him that fits are not authorized. It produces nothing, except to make matters worse. There is no amount of retribution that can stop his raging against the machine once it starts and once it starts down a certain path, he will ask questions that he knows the answer will not be what he would like. A typical interaction:
Son: Dad, can friend X spend the night?
Me: Not tonight son, it’s a school night.
Son: Then can I go to friend X’s house when we get home?
Me: Son, it’ll be almost bedtime when we get home.
Son: Then can I stay up late watching a movie?
Me: Son, it’s a school night.
[The devolution continues}
I’ve learned that a meltdown and a fit are not exactly the same thing. I’ve also learned some things about myself.
Few things will stretch you out spiritually the way that fostering/adopting does. Paul advises us, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4)
Paul offers no caveat or qualification. Do not provoke your child to anger. As every child is different, this implies that we assess and adjust as necessary for each child. The child traumatized by the system necessitates a significant adjustment.
This has forced me to confront an aspect of my own self, a particular vulnerability, and that is the need to demand unquestioning compliance and submission which when not obtained, generates fury. Do not hear me say that children should not obey their parents. They should and some need a consistent reminder through the seat of their britches. Yet, can we expect those afflicted to react in a way we would consider rational?
Unquestionably, dealing with fits/tantrums/meltdowns has revealed to me a personal weakness, a kink in the armor of my personal psyche. As it was seared into my conscience from the youngest age, this stronghold proves unbreakable of my own accord. Thankfully, I serve a risen Savior whose very specialty is the destruction of such strongholds. Only through much prayer and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit could I ever give my son what he so desperately needs.
As a young boy, when I threw a fit, I needed discipline. My son needs love…patient love. My imperfect response to his meltdown affords me the opportunity to display the love of Christ to him. My wife’s patient resolve and firm manner likewise inspires me, greatly.
After the storm subsides, my son will often climb into my lap, drape his arms around my neck, and whisper in his raspy voice, “I love you, Daddy,” His love and sheer trust make it well worthwhile. My heart always swells.
God knew what He was doing when He brought this young man to us. As much as my son needed us, I needed him just as much, if not more.
Author - Founder
Soldier, Pastor, Author – Bradford stays busy, with his wife Ami, raising their 9 children, serving the nation, pastoring, preaching, and writing books (#3 is due out October ’17).
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